SWEENY: Ah! Now the gallows trap has opened that drops the strongest to the ground!
LYNCHSEACHAN: Sweeney, now you are in my hands, I can heal these father’s wounds: your family has fed no grave, all your people are alive.
Seamus Heaney, Sweeney Astray
My friend the poet, Matthew Sweeney, is certain he is dying. This is a conviction he has held without remission, since 1952 when he first saw the light, in its grey Irish version, in Ballyliffin, in northernmost Donegal. He knew even then, though he was some years from the articulation of this intelligence, that something was very, very wrong. What was it the pink infant Sweeney sensed, aswaddle in his bassinet, warmed by the gleeful cooing of his parents, a peacetime citizen of a green and peaceful place, that made him conscious of impending doom? Nothing in his more or less idyllic childhood, his education at the Malin National School, his successful matriculation from the Franciscans at Gormanstown, his escape from university – first from Dublin, then from North London Polytechnic, and finally from Freiburg (where he befriended, for reasons soon to be illumined, a corps of medical students) – or any of the several other blessings this life bestows, could disabuse him of the sense, continuously a part of his psychology, that there was a deadly moment in every minute; an end with his name on it ever at hand.
Even after his successful wooing of the most beautiful woman in the neighbouring parish, the former Rosemary Barber of Buncrana, praised in local song and story for the fierceness of her eyes, the depth of her intellection, the lithe perfections of her form, and the sensibilities of her character – even after such a triumph, the niggling gloom that attended his conviction, far from going hush, grew louder still. For now he had not only a life to lose but a life made precious by the blissful consortium of married life. (A consortium on which his forthcoming collection The Bridal Suite will no doubt shed inspired light.) In like manner, the birth of his daughter Nico, his hearts needle if ever was, followed by the birth of his son Malvin, who soon enough would call him Daddy, made him immediately happier and accordingly sadder.
‘If you love your life in this world,’ Matthew remembered Paul opining, ‘you will lose it.’ He loved his life. What sane man wouldn’t. Loss, he figured, stalked him with its scythe.
He’d written poems. He liked the sound of words of his own making in his own mouth. He’d met with early and deserved critical success. The Sweeneys had long since settled in London, the better to pursue his literary career. The better, likewise, for a man whose fear of driving was, by his own admission, consummate – a dread driven by visions of his body and the bodies of his children entangled with metal to their disadvantage. London, with its Underground, buses and reliable taxis, unlike the hinterlands of Donegal, gave Matthew the mobility he needed without the morbidity risked by driving a car. What’s more, the Kingdom’s capital is one of the great ambulatories of the world, providing access, at every turn, to the retail purveyors of essential and elective goods.
Thus, from the stoop of his ample flat in Dombey Street, Matthew Sweeney need only travel eastwards less than two hundred metres, whereupon he finds himself in Lamb’s Conduit Street – a walking mall of small shops and markets. Within a stone’s throw of his premises is a pharmacist (to whom Mr Sweeney addresses frequent queries), a French bakery for croissants, a florist (from whom Mr Sweeney purchased the wee cacti which became the title poem of his most recent and acclaimed collection), his local public house, the Lamb (for the usual wetgoods), a dry cleaner’s, two coffee shops, a grocery and a greengrocer (with whom Mr Sweeney has long debated the use and abuses of diverse lettuces, aubergines and chili peppers), two victuallers (one Irish, one Prussian), a herbalist (on whose custom I am unqualified to comment), and the Bloomsbury office of A. France Undertakers – one of London’s eldest and most respected carriage trade mortuaries, passing by whose black and gilded storefront, Mr Sweeney can be observed to quicken his pace and heard to whistle the fragments of a Tom Waits tune. Only the loss, in 1991, of Bernard Stone’s Turret Bookshop, which housed the city’s most comprehensive selection of contemporary poetry, along with Bernard Stone himself, diminished the hospitable cityscape outside the Sweeneys’ door.